Home Life Echoes Of Our Past When Webster Parish needed a jail, part two

When Webster Parish needed a jail, part two

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Sheriff J. W. Reagan

Last week I began what was intended to be a two-part Echo about the problems endured with the first two Webster Parish Jails.

However, doing research I soon found I could not compact the story into just two columns, so it has now grown to three articles, this is part two.
At the conclusion of last week’s Echo, the Webster Parish Police Jury had decided to take an aggressive policy toward solving the problem of the Webster Parish Jail.
For more than a decade, the largely makeshift lockup had been plagued with constant escapes and was a laughing stock across the state. After an attempt to pass a tax to fund a new jail was rejected by the voters and later attempts to get a tax on the ballot failed, the Jury moved ahead in the Summer of 1884 by dedicating part of the already existing tax money toward building a new jail.

Like the previous jail, this facility was to be built on property occupied by the old Minden Town Hall, but in order to keep the older facility in service, the Jury bought an adjacent lot for $100 to expand the footprint of the jail, once the older jail was destroyed.

The new jail was finished in December 1884, but based on economic numbers, it was clear it was not an ideal facility. The tax plan from 1881 had intended a budget of $4000 for a new facility, but the jail that opened in 1884 only cost $1500.

Still, it was a brick jail instead of a wooden structure and it was hoped it would end some of the swinging door nature of the earlier facility. Sadly, the door would still seem to swing freely, at times both ways.

On Tuesday, July 21, 1885, there were eight prisoners housed in the Webster Parish Jail. Two of the most notorious were Cicero Green and John Figures, both African-Americans.

Green had been convicted to fifteen years at hard labor in the state penitentiary for an attempted murder. He was still housed in Minden because his case was on appeal. John Figures was accused of the murder of James U. “Bunk” Coyle, son of Police Juror W. L. Coyle from Ward 2.

The New Orleans Picayune of Monday, November 24, 1884, gave the following description of the crime as originally reported by the Minden Democrat of Thursday, November 20, 1884 (making the date of the crime November 13, 1884):

“Last Thursday evening, about 4 o’clock, a murder was committed about twelve miles above Minden by a negro named John Figures on “Bunk” Coyle. It appears from all we can learn from our Sheriff, Mr. J. W. Reagan, that Mr. Coyle and Figures had a difficulty about some cotton a day or two before Thursday. Coyle had been squirrel hunting and passing through the field where Figures was at work, the difficulty was renewed, and the negro wrenched the gun from Coyle, struck him three heavy blows, knocking him down and breaking two ribs. Figures then jumped on and choked him, leaving marks on his neck. Coyle succeeded in walking about a hundred yards where he sat down and died within a few minutes. Figures at first escaped but has since been captured.”

Back to the revolving door, Figures had escaped from the jail in December, after being indicted for murder and had only recently been captured at Texarkana in July 1885, on a warrant for $300 issued by Governor McEnery.

Sheriff Reagan brought Figures back to Minden to await trial. At about 8:00 on the evening of July 21, Editor Moses Fort of the Minden Democrat was going home when he encountered several armed men. As quoted in the New Orleans Picayune of July 28, 1885, Fort described the encounter in this way:

“On last Tuesday evening about 8 o’clock, when on our way home, while passing through a skirt of woods, we noticed a suspicious-looking man behind a tree and spoke to him and passed on. We looked back and saw another man with a pistol and heard still others at our side, and at once became conscious that something wrong was up. About that time several men started toward us with cocked pistols, calling ‘Halt, halt!’ and for a moment were placed in a very uncomfortable position, looking down the muzzles of several six shooters, and, as a matter of course, quietly subsided.”

Fort was told he was the “wrong” man, but they had to take him prisoner, so under armed guard he had to go along with the men on their expedition.
It soon became clear that the men were looking for either Deputy Sheriff Bailey or Sheriff J. W. Reagan, who were supposed to be traveling that same road to their homes. Fort was taken up the Long Springs Road (roughly today’s Dorcheat Road) to Mile Branch, where a group of about 50 men were waiting.

Here the men revealed their intentions, they wanted to get into the jail and kill both Green and Figures. The plan was to capture either Bailey or Reagan and force them to open the jail. The mob aligned in military formation, all mounted on horseback, and proceeded south into Minden.

They went to the home of Sheriff Reagan, hoping to capture him, but the Sheriff was out of town. Instead, they forced Reagan’s brother-in-law, William Graham Stewart (later President of the Webster Parish School Board and the namesake of the now gone Stewart Elementary School) to join their group.

The same treatment was given all male citizens who heard the noise and came out to see what was going on.

Next, they captured Deputy Bailey and at gun point, forced him to open the doors to the jail. Entering the prison, they forced the other prisoners to drag the two intended victims from their cots and hold them against the bars of the cell.

Each man was then shot several times. Figures was shot four times, two with pistol and two with rifle in the back and the side. Green died from a single blast of buckshot to the heart, dying instantly.

Leaving the jail, the mob, with as many as twenty of the men being masked, headed for the home of Sheriff Reagan, to see if he had returned home. Someone from the jail called Reagan on the telephone and he managed to escape the lynch mob.

The original plan had been to hang the two men, but the Deputy claimed he could not open the cell doors, so the men improvised (a technique that would recur in this same jail.)

Unable to find Reagan, mob left Minden shortly after midnight, leaving in their wake an embarrassed community.

While racial bias was rampant in this time of our history, there was still respect for legal due process. The Minden Democrat commented: “Mob law is wrong and law-abiding citizens condemn the bloody deed. There was no excuse for such a horrible crime, as the prisoners were perfectly secure, and the law would have dealt to them ample justice. But the crime has been done and we hope the people will never again witness such horrors in our midst.” As we see, that hope was not to be realized.

A little more than two years later, the Webster Parish Jail would again be caught up in a tragic tale.

On February 17, 1887, Ernest Wren, four-year-old son of State Representative G. L. P. Wren was killed while playing with Jim Cornelius, a 14-year-old African-American boy who worked on the Wren farm and often played with the little boy.

Cornelius stated when caught that he was just playing and accidentally hurt the Wren child. When Ernest Wren threatened to go tell his mother what had happened, Cornelius struck the small child in the head with a pine branch, killing him instantly.

Before G. L. P. Wren could reach the scene, a mob assembled, captured Cornelius and was about to lynch him.

Wren intervened and demanded they release the boy into his custody, so he could take him to the Sheriff.

Respecting Wren’s wishes, they turned Cornelius over to him. Cornelius was tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to hanging.

That hanging took place in Minden on Friday, February 3, 1888. While the Webster Parish Jail had no facility for an indoor hanging, Cornelius, who testified in court he had no idea you could be killed for killing another, was housed in the local jail for nearly one year before his death.

He was hung on a tree located just to the west of the Webster Parish Court House, approximately in the area of today’s western parking lot for Capital One Bank. In 1891, the law was changed and all hangings from Webster Parish were carried out at the state penitentiary. So, the hanging of Cornelius was the last legal hanging to take place in Webster Parish.

After these two tragedies, the problem of escapes did not go away. Little more than a month after Cornelius was hung, three prisoners – a horse thief, an accused rapist and an accused murderer escaped when a jailer left a cell door open. The horse thief was quickly recaptured, but the other two were never apprehended.

In March of 1894, the threat of a “reverse” swinging door emerged once again. Two old outlaw enemies, Linc Waggoner and Tom Kinder were both being housed in the Webster Parish Jail awaiting trial.

Kinder had begun his battles with Waggoner while Kinder was a law enforcement officer. But he later turned outlaw and was being held in Webster Parish under a change of venue from Claiborne Parish where he had been charged with a killing in the infamous Tuggle-Ramsey feud.

There was much alarm that a repeat of the episode with Figures and Green might take place. Sheriff T. J. Mims created a group of forty volunteer deputies and Governor Foster authorized two companies of the Louisiana Militia at Shreveport to be on alert to proceed to Minden to prevent violence.

The Kinder trial went to the jury, and before they were able to return a verdict, Kinder committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine. Interestingly, the day after Kinder’s death, the jury came back deadlocked, resulting in a hung jury and a mistrial.

This left Kinder’s old rival, Linc Waggoner housed in the Webster Parish Jail, awaiting trial for the murder of W. S. Holland.

Waggoner was found not guilty of the charge; but was still subject to trial as a horse thief in Webster Parish. It was known that if there was a risk of mob violence against Kinder, the risk of the same happening to Waggoner was much greater.

When arrested in January, Waggoner was housed in the Ouachita Parish Jail to provide more security. After his acquittal on the murder charge, Waggoner was returned to Monroe.

He was only to return to Minden to stand trial on the theft charge, likely in the September session of the District Court. His return to Minden would be the occasion of yet another tragic tale from the Webster Parish Jail that is an Echo of our Past.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.

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